Pulling people together can be difficult when you can’t physically get together. That was the challenge facing the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry Staff Council during much of Nancy Parsons’ recently completed 18-month term as council president.

""In addition to serving as a liaison between the School of Dentistry staff and SOD Dean Russell Taichman, DMD, DMSc, the council works to engage employees through a series of programs and events. But such in-person gatherings were put on hold throughout 2021 and into 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had to get really creative,” Parsons says. “We’re there to support our staff and keep morale high, and that was even more important after COVID hit. It was challenging, but I think we did a good job.”

The simplest option was to replace in-person meetings with Zoom calls. This enabled the council to continue offering speakers who could provide information on a variety of topics. These included talks about tax preparation, Social Security benefits and the UAB campus master plan.

“There’s construction going on all around us right now,” Parsons says. “We wanted to bring information about these renovations to our staff so that they’re aware of exactly what is taking place and what the end goals are. Once people understand those types of things, they feel a little more accommodating.”

The council also acknowledged the stress that many people were experiencing because of the COVID situation by organizing a Zoom call with a representative from the UAB Employee Assistance & Counseling Center.

“He talked to us about resilience,” Parsons says. “We were concerned about everybody’s well-being. It’s not only about them coming to work every day, but also their emotional well-being. We feel responsible for all our co-workers. We tried to put ourselves out there to give people knowledge about the programs that are available. And that if you need them, all you have to do is reach out.

“That’s the purpose of Staff Council, to be a positive influence on days when maybe things aren’t so positive. No matter what organization you’re with, there are days when things just aren’t positive. Our goal is to try to help build morale.”

Sometimes that was accomplished through small acts of kindness designed simply to bring a smile to the faces. This ranged from sending out a regular Monday morning email that contained a joke or motivational quote, to providing box lunches that staff members could enjoy during the Zoom presentations.

Cookies were made available on Valentine’s Day, and small bags of candy were handed out on Halloween. The council also had unexpected pop-ups for such treats as ice cream sandwiches and popsicles, informing staff members that they could stop by during the afternoon and pick one up.

“We’re all adults, but everybody likes a popsicle,” Parsons says. “We’d try to give them something unexpected. Just something to pick people up and be positive. If we got a smile out of somebody, then we served our purpose.”

In addition to a welcome event for new employees, the council also held an employee appreciation and service awards luncheon last spring. It was the first big post-pandemic event for all staff.

The council definitely elicited some smiles through one of the programs that Parsons helped initiate. She said the council takes an anonymous survey of staff members each year inquiring about the issues that concern them. And every year, one of the top responses is the difficulty of parking on campus.

“So we held a few raffles for a parking space that is right behind the School of Dentistry building, when it was available,” Parsons says. “Everybody’s name was put in a hat and we’d draw a name out, and that person was able to park there for a week.”

“That’s probably one of the best things we did. We had more positive feedback about that one week of parking. What’s more, it was everyone on the Staff Council making something great happen. It was truly an awesome group effort.”

“That’s one of the whole points of Staff Council,” Parsons went on to say. “We’re supposed to motivate people, and sometimes you have to get creative.”

Parsons says one of the most enjoyable and successful moments of her tenure as Staff Council president was a Zoom presentation given by Lisa Higginbotham, director of the UAB Benevolent Fund and one of the founders of the UAB campus food pantry, Blazer Kitchen. During her talk, Higginbotham mentioned that spices are among the items that Blazer Kitchen struggles to keep in stock, especially around the holidays.

“After that, Staff Council got together and sponsored a spice drive for Blazer Kitchen last year right before Thanksgiving,” Parsons says. “We ended up with five huge boxes of all kinds of spices and delivered those to Blazer Kitchen in time for the holidays. It was so wonderful.”

“While this is the School of Dentistry Staff Council, it is also a part of the bigger picture. It’s the effect the School of Dentistry has on the campus as a whole.”

The task of heading up Staff Council now falls on Theresa Creel, who has taken over as the group’s president. She says that after nearly three years of dealing with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, she hopes to increase the overall enjoyment in 2023.

“COVID stole a few years from us. I want to ramp things up and have some fun next year,” Creel says. “Since we can gather now, I want to implement some in-person offerings like yoga and painting.”

“We still want to do things that are educational, like having talks about taxes and benefits. But we also want to help boost morale by just having some fun. And letting our staff know that we really appreciate them and all they do to keep our patients and students taken care of, and our school running smoothly.”